The elaborate charm of Victorian sterling adds a genteel flourish to holiday tables.

During that romantic time from 1837 to 1901, it was prestigious to entertain guests with ornate flatware and serving pieces, said Mara Territo, owner of">The Antique Guild in Alexandria.

Most of her customers are searching for sterling-silver or coin-silver pieces for entertaining: a gravy ladle missing from their pattern, an exquisite serving piece they admire regardless of whether it matches or whimsical bonbon servers, asparagus tongs and marrow scoops to delight guests.

Resources">The Antique Guild, Alexandria">Penny Farthing Antiques, Middleburg
Darryl Carter Inc., D.C.">Leesburg Antique Emporium">Antique Cupboard, Wisconsin

"The Victorians had a serving piece for everything. They were very stylish and practical," said Lesley Clark, owner of">Penny Farthing Antiques in Middleburg.

Popular American flatware patterns are Chantilly and Strasbourg by Gorham, Repousse by Kirk, and Rose by Stieff, Territo said.

"My [Daughters of the American Revolution] ladies are the most traditional clients," she said. "It's a Southern thing. People tend to be regional in their silver selection."

To keep silver looking lovely, Territo and Clark recommend frequent use and hand polishing -- dishwashers foster a dull, white patina. If you're short on time, a museum precious-metals cleaning plate skims off tarnish with electrolytic action. The sparkle lasts, and the silver rinses clean under the tap.

D.C. designer Darryl Carter, though, takes a different approach. He admires the patina of old silver and says: "Never polish!"

Unfortunately, the workmanship of these antiques is fast disappearing, Clark said. As housing and stock prices have declined in the past few years, silver's cost surged from $5 per ounce to $31 per ounce.

"Unfortunately, silver's being sold off because it's worth more melted down," Clark said.

A 97-piece set for 12 costs $7,500 at Penny Farthing. At the">Leesburg Antique Emporium, a set once priced at $2,000 is $10,000 to $15,000 today, the store's Linda Conor said.

The">Antique Cupboard website lists a Tiffany set for 12 with multiple serving pieces for $19,500. As prices soar, Territo sells less flatware and more unique individual items in the $115-to-$695 range.

Carter encourages clients to rethink the traditional table by blending classical and modern elements. "Mix sterling flatware and serving-piece patterns," he advised. "Over time, mix in a few subtly modern pieces with your traditional ones. Vacate the mentality that everything must match, and collect individual pieces as you come upon them."

With silver prices rising, silver is a good investment, Clark said. "But most of all, treasure and use your silver. There's nothing like the look of nice old silver on a dinner table."

Shop knowledgeably

Experts assess silver by its origin, manufacturer, hallmark and standard or the ratio of silver to alloys. Sterling is 925 parts to 1,000, and coin silver is 900 parts to 1,000.

Flatware sets serve six, eight or 12. The age, weight and number of pieces determine the price.

To buy or complete a Victorian sterling flatware set:

» Do your research and purchase from a reputable dealer.

» Find the knives first, as they wear out sooner. Or add knives with mother-of-pearl handles.

» Shop online if you must, but find a way to test an item's balance and condition by holding it in your hand.